Mention the words "direct-to-video sequels" within earshot of any Disney fan of a certain age, and you're sure to evoke cringes. "Cinderella II," "Bambi II," "Lady and the Tramp II" "The Fox and the Hound II" and "101 Dalmatians II" hitting the retail shelves was a blatant cash grab by Disney, and tarnished the legacy of their animated films. They may have staved off the demise of traditional animation for a few years and kept Disney's animators working, but the sequels were so universally reviled for their sub-par production values and completely extraneous nature, they did more harm than good in the long run.
So upon hearing the news that PIXAR will be spinning off a semi-sequel to "Cars" called "Planes" that is going direct to DVD, my first reaction was apprehension. Is this the first sign that PIXAR - the current reigning champ among the CGI animation studios, with a spotless record of box office successes - is going to make the same mistakes as Disney and start a heartbreaking descent into mediocrity? Two of the next three PIXAR theatrical releases will be sequels: "Monsters Inc 2" and "Cars 2," coming on the heels of this summer's "Toy Story 3." The recent regime change at Disney coincided with reports that the company wants to get more aggressive about building marketable brands. "Cars" may have been the least-liked of the PIXAR films, but it moves a lot of merchandise, while the likes of "Up" and "Ratatouille" have not.
But after giving it some thought, this could be a good move. Disney eased back into the direct-to-DVD market recently with the CGI "Tinker Bell" films, a spin-off series starring the character from the 1953 "Peter Pan," and they've managed to escape the scorn heaped on most of their other sequels. It's not hard to see why. The "Tinker Bell" films are well made and very self-contained in their own little original universe. They have little to do with the original "Peter Pan," aside from sharing the title character. While "Tinker Bell" is just as unnecessary as something like "Return to Never Land," a direct sequel to "Peter Pan" released in theaters in 2002, at least the series isn't so dependent on exploiting our nostalgia for an older classic. Disney has been so successful with the "Fairies" brand it built around "Tinker Bell," a live action film featuring the character was just announced, with Elizabeth Banks up to play Tink.
"Planes" will likewise be a spin-off instead of a direct sequel to the "Cars" movies, and I'm assuming from the title that we're not going to see much of popular characters like Lightning McQueen and Mater the Tow Truck, who have four wheels and no wings. The Disney nerd in me is actually curious to know if they might include cameos from some similar airplane characters like Pedro from "Saludos Amigos." I don't think "Planes" is going to be able to escape the feeling that it's only second-string material. After all, if "Toy Story 2" was upgraded from a direct-to-video project to a theatrical feature based on the strength of its material, then it's easy to draw the conclusion that the opposite is true as well, and "Planes" will be a feature that simply isn't good enough for the big screen.
The major concern is that PIXAR might end up diluting the quality of their work and the strength of their brand if their attention is diverted to these other projects. I've seen some commentators suggest that the direct-to-video films would be an extension of their award-winning shorts, which are used to train up-and-coming talent and test new animation techniques. Also, with the animation industry as healthy as it is right now, it's a good opportunity for the studio to start expanding its operations. PIXAR opened its first satellite studio, PIXAR Canada, back in April. A smaller production like "Planes" would be a great way to keep all those new animators busy and help them work their way up to PIXAR level work. But again, the danger is that they could overextend themselves the way Disney did, when it had half a dozen smaller studios in France, Japan, Australia, and other countries that ended up churning out a lot the direct-to-video and television work.
We all know the money's the thing, and that Disney is itching to parlay PIXAR's golden reputation into more profits. The direct-to-DVD market is a lucrative one and Disney has proven it's possible to create original content based on its existing properties that aren't so obnoxiously derivative. If PIXAR wants to follow suit, I'm sure they'll be successful. I just hope they remember the significant risks and dangers involved in a venture like this, and that there are always hidden costs to cashing in.